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"Living Under the Trees"
A photoessay by David Bacon, From Contexts, journal of the American Sociological Association
At sunset, at the southern-most end of the San Joaquin Valley, a crew of indigenous workers cut the tops and roots off bunches of onions. (Photo: David Bacon)
About 30 million Mexicans survive on less than 30 pesos per day - not quite $3. The minimum wage is 45 pesos per day. The Mexican federal government estimates that 37.7 percent of its 106 million citizens - 40 million people - live in poverty. Some 25 million, or 23.6 percent, live in extreme poverty. In rural Mexico, more than 10 million people have a daily income of less than 12 pesos - a little more than one American dollar.
It's no accident the state of Oaxaca is one of the main starting points for the current stream of Mexican migrants coming to the United States. Extreme poverty encompasses 75 percent of its 3.4 million residents, according to EDUCA, a Mexican education and development organization. Thousands of indigenous people leave Oaxaca's hillside villages for the United States every year, not only for economic reasons but also because a repressive political system thwarts the kind of economic development that could lift incomes in the poorest rural areas. Lack of development pushes people off the land. The majority of Oaxacans are indigenous people - that is, they belong to communities and ethnic groups that existed long before Columbus landed in the Caribbean. They speak 23 different languages.
"Migration is a necessity, not a choice," explained Romualdo Juan Gutierrez Cortez, a teacher in Santiago Juxtlahuaca, in Oaxaca's rural Mixteca region. "It is disheartening to see a student go through many hardships to get an education here in Mexico and become a professional, and then later in the United States do manual labor. Sometimes those with an education are working side-by-side with others who do not even know how to read."
In California, migrants have become the majority of people working in the fields. Settlements of Triquis, Mixtecs, Chatinos and other indigenous groups are dispersed in a Oaxacan diaspora. This movement of people has created larger transnational communities, bound together by shared culture and language, and the social organizations people bring with them from place to place.
"Living Under the Trees" is a project that documents the experiences and conditions of indigenous farm worker communities. It focuses on social movements in indigenous communities and how indigenous culture helps communities survive and enjoy life. The project's purpose is to win public support for policies to help those communities by putting a human face on conditions and providing a forum in which people speak for themselves. It is a joint effort of California Rural Legal Assistance, its Indigenous Farm Worker Project, and the Indigenous Front of Binational Organizations. An exhibition of photographs and oral history panels from this project has been touring throughout California for two years.
These particular photographs highlight the relationship between community residents and their surroundings, as well as their relations with each other. They show situations of extreme poverty, but are also intended to depict people who are capable of changing conditions by organizing themselves and creating social change.
"Living Under the Trees."
David Bacon is a documentary photographer and journalist. He is the author of "Illegal People: How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants." All photos and text are © David Bacon.
A Chatino farm worker from Oaxaca rests after work on the mattress where he sleeps. The workers in this camp have strung up blue tarps from the trees to provide shelter from sun and rain. They live next to a field of wine grapes. Though they seem to be living in some of the most difficult conditions imaginable, these communities have strong cultural bonds and create a support network that provides food and companionship for migrants just arriving from the south.
A young woman holds her son outside their tent in a camp on a hillside outside Del Mar, one of San Diego's most affluent suburbs. Most residents in this camp are indigenous Mixtec and Zapotec farmworkers from Oaxaca.
At sunset, at the southern-most end of the San Joaquin Valley, a crew of indigenous workers cut the tops and roots off bunches of onions.
Horacio Torres tops onions late at night. Onion harvesters sometimes work at night in order to get as many hours of work as possible, and also because the heat is unbearable in the early afternoon. Workers are not paid overtime wages for this night work.
A woman on a broccoli harvesting machine cuts a bunch into florets with one stroke of her knife. She is part of a crew working for labor contractor Nasario Dominguez in a field in Chualar. Many workers in this crew are indigenous migrants from Oaxaca and Guerrero.
Salomon Sarita Sanchez works in a crew of strawberry pickers made up of indigenous Mixtec immigrants from Oaxaca. As people like Sarita find their way to the United States, the money they send home is crucial to the survival of the towns they leave behind.
Every Sunday, a priest celebrates mass for migrant workers from Oaxaca in the ravine below the hill where they live in Del Mar. Migrants living here harvest tomatoes, strawberries, oranges and avocados, the county's principal crops. Until last year, they had camped under the trees on hillsides within sight of new housing developments. Their settlement was forcibly removed by county authorities after activists with the anti-immigrant Minuteman Project destroyed an altar built by the workers for the Catholic mass.
Marcelina Lopez, a Mixtec immigrant from Oaxaca, and her family are farmworkers living in a tiny house on a ranch in the vineyards. They pick raisins and other crops around Fresno.
Chicanitas is an enormous farm labor camp on a US Indian reservation near the Salton Sea in the Coachella Valley. Many of the camp's residents are indigenous Purepecha migrants from the Mexican State of Michoacan. The Coachella Valley's rich citrus, grape and date crops all depend on their work. The asthma rate among these farmworkers' children is very high, in part because they breathe in so much dust in this remote desert region.
Dancers from the many ethnic groups of Oaxaca, now living as migrants in the United States, perform at the annual festival of Oaxacan indigenous culture, the Guelaguetza, in Fresno. This is one of at least five places in California where Oaxacans organize the festival every year.